March 2019

She shall move in Silence, for her words carry meaning.
Her herald shall be the Scorpion, and he shall speak.
She will be as the Servant of the Scorpion in all ways.
They will travel the world in this guise, incognito.
But woe betide those who forget the bitter ice cold.
Woe betide the tortured souls of the seventh level.
She sets forth looking not for warmth, but for death.
Souls for the reaping, poison for the spreading.
Scorpions upon scorpions for an unwary world.

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The flowers were here before we were.
We mow them down, plow under purples and reds
Not even because we want to, necessarily
But the homeowners’ association says so
They will be here after we leave
After our grass has died, our eaves caved
Spread out in the sunshine, uneaven
The mower’s blades a distant legend

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The 88th layer of the Abyss, the Brine Flats, are not devoid of civilization. Outside the winding and corrosive labyrinth of salt and rock that surrounds the citadel of Lord Demogorgon, many inhabited tidal islets can be found. One of the most “safe” for traveler’s is Demon’s Hole, a small settlement that has grown up around a bar frequented by the foul beings that ply the waterways.

Most demons and planeswalkers that wash up here are transplants transplants, drifting in because they are somewhat less likely to be killed. The drinks are strong, relatively safe rooms are available, and it is possible—though not at all easy—to open portals to Sigil or the Lower Planes therefrom.

The owner of the Demon’s Hole bar is a Type IV demon known as Sybil. Sybil allows no fights, serves strong drinks, and is generally willing to do business with travelers for the right price, which usually involves some sort of pain, torture, or devoured memory. Sybil keeps the best of these and distills the others into painwine, agony ale, and of course the legendary Styx Shooter.

It’s also the premier place to go to dig up scuttlebutt on another feature of Demon’s Hole, and the reason that it’s such a favorite of planar hobos: the Tanaaric Gate. This sentient portal will create a link to any plane, any dimension, as many times as you like–but only in exchange for something you hold dear.

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“Memory fades, and when the people carrying it die, it fails. Paper burns. Hard drives fail. What lasts, then? What strides, through the falling ashes of the burning Library of Alexandria, confident that it will persevere?” She spoke with quiet intensity, her eyes riveted on Marianna. Other than her mouth, her eyes, nothing moved from the lotus position.

“If you’re going to say that you are an idea, I think we might need to have a frank chat.” Marianna drank deep of her stillborn coffee, wincing at its bitter dregs. “We’re each the hero of our own story, you know. To ourselves, we are each an idea. I suppose we are to others as well. But not in the way you mean.”

“Are you sure of that?”

“Well, who is someone that’s an idea? Give me someone old, you mentioned Alexandria.” Marianna scraped the bottom of her cup with a beat-up spoon, seriously thinking about shoveling what remained into her mouth. “I’m curious.”

“Alexander the Great. He is an idea undiminished by the passage of 2500 years.”

“Okay, sweetie. What idea is that?” Marianna said. “I don’t mean ‘this is a good general who conquered the world.’ What idea does Alexander represent? If you can tell me, well, maybe I’m wrong about this whole thing. But I doubt it.”

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“Ley lines, why you gotta be that way?”

Syd was in the basement of the public library, masquerading as Ms. Inez, the elderly night shift librarian. It had been easy enough to dispatch the real Inez; calling her up with an authoritative voice to give their the night off without pay did the trick. She had cackled something about a casino upstate and left the place completely unlocked.

One you knew how to look for them, the ley lines that knit places to their existence in the physical world were easy to find. Folks tended to align things with them unconsciously, from potted plants that just happened to grow lusher on one side to a line of posters that all slumped in the same direction.

“Unless you have a computer lab that looks like a refugee from a Soviet gulag,” Syd groused in Inez’s voice. The bare, painted cinderblocks, with rows of buzzing late-model PCs…it had been set out with the sterile carelessness of an architect running out the door for along weekend.

If there was one thing Syd respected, it was folks taking pride in work. Not that this stopped them from interfering with, disrupting, or destroying said work if it was necessary or fun, but they respected it all the same.

“Everything okay, Ms. Inez?”

Syd whirled around, catching themself awkwardly halfway through the motion—a 60-year-old woman couldn’t bust a move that fast. Some kid was there, looking concerned from where he sat at an empty computer carrel. A soldering iron and a bunch of video game parts were spread out before him–retro stuff, something that would have been in vogue when the kid was a zygote.

“Oh, I’m just looking at the cables,” Syd said, vaguely gesturing at the computer. “Don’t you ever find that they’re just too messy, that they offend your sense of order?”

“Yesterday you said that they were a delightful island of chaos in the straitjacket of order your career had put you in,” replied the kid. “You called them data spaghetti and said you wanted to eat them all up.”

“Did I really?” Syd said, surprised. “Must have been before lunch. You know I tend to…wax poetic…about all of the…wires…when my blood sugar’s low.”

“I might’ve exaggerated it a little bit,” said the kid. He turned back to whatever he was working on. “Don’t worry, I remember the deal. If I set off the smoke alarm or melt the desk again, that’s it for my iron in here.”

Syd looked over and saw that, indeed, a tendril of smoke was rising from the kid’s soldering iron, and it was being borne in a straight direction away from him. The ley line was revealing itself.

“Well, you do that,” Syd said. “Ms. Inez is going to go over this way and refer to herself in the third person.”

“Have fun,” replied the kid. “I prefer it when you do third person though. Remember ‘Heath Kilgore sat there as if he didn’t know half the floor could smell the trace he just burned out on a modded Xbox’ from last month?”

“Oh, of course.” Syd squirmed uneasily, unable to tell if the kid was messing with him or Ms. Inez was actually as bizarre as she sounded. The librarian they remembered from way back when had been a doddering old dullard, after all.

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What I first had taken for wings were in fact jagged shards of obsidian, volcanic spears that hung together through some sort of arcane gravity. What I had thought to be flesh was sand, a dune’s worth, in constant living motion, like a waterfall of tiny grains held in a shape vaguely suggestive of a feminine form.

Perhaps more importantly, I had thought the crimson on its–her?–extremities to be gloves, shoes, blindfold. But they were no such thing. It was blood, warm and steaming, forming a sort of emulsion with the sand and providing the only hint that the hovering, quasi-angelic form was alive and not merely a sorcerous puppet.

“Can you speak?” I said.

“Yes.” The words were a desert wind, a blood-tinged whisper that howled.

“What are you, and why are you here?”

“What I am is not important. Why I am here is not important. What is important, rather, is what you are, and why you are here. Many have sought this place. Many have died here.”

“I am here,” I said, “because I wish to know the truth.”

“And are you willing to suffer for it? To die for it?”

A deep, racking exhale into the stale desert air. “I am.”

“Very well, then. Let us begin.”

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Dianna walked slowly, her umbrella clutched in one hand. The forecast had threatened rain as recently as the day before, and that was her flimsy excuse for clutching it so tightly when it was sunny and mild. She hoped that no one could see the terror beneath the calm mask of her face, or notice the whisper of air being drawn between her tightly clenched fingers.

“Hey, Dianna.” It was Collins. He looked pleasant, even agreeable, now that he’d cleaned himself up, per her orders. “You worried about a little sun?”

“Sun?” Dianna said blithely, missing his point entirely in her attempt to seem cool and collected.

Collins pointed at her umbrella. “Your parasol, Dr. Choi. Worried about catching a few too many rays today?”

“Oh! Yes, I never did much like the sun,” said Dianna. “A good parasol is better than sunscreen, and you don’t break out after using it.”

“Tough to swim with one, though,” laughed Collins.

“Only if you’re out of practice,” replied Dianna. “You’re quite recovered from your shock earlier?”

“Never better,” said Collins. “The seed of madness is still there, but, like you said, I’ve walled it off to keep on the task at hand. This is too important to let the impossible leak your mind out of your ears.”

“Yes, of course,” said Dianna. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Collins, I’m going to take some of my own advice and rest for a bit.”

Collins nodded and proceeded on his way down to the arch. When he reached it, and opened the containment doors, he found a naked and empty stone arch, with none of the technicolor cosmos that had once shone through it.

By the time the alarms began to go off in the excavation, Dianna was already at home, packing. But she did permit herself, for a moment, to open the umbrella to gaze at what lay within. Then, smiling, she set it down, with impossible galaxies in her eyes.

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“Come on Waffles, let’s go,” I said. We called her that constantly, after an infamous incident involving the negligent discharge of a waffle iron.

At that, Waffles petulantly stomped her foot. “Stop that!” she cried. “You know I don’t like it when you call me ‘Waffles!'”

“Well, I’m sorry about that,” I said. “But you have to admit it’s accurate. You’re square, rather shallow, and nobody wants you for breakfast when they have any other option. Oh, and you usually have to be toasted before you’re good for anything.”

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“I am an emissary.”

The statue appeared to be speaking, its lips and limbs moving, but that was impossible.

“I see you are confused. Please, focus on the statue.”

Something appeared to move, slithering or skittering, through the periphery of vision. It was as impossible as a moving, speaking statue, but…it was a darker impossibility. One that seemed to flout the laws of time, of space, of movement, of sanity.

“It is for your benefit. The statue, made in the image of your kind long ago, will permit me to limit the damage.”

Maddening images and shadows. Fragments of what might have been slime-glistened skin, the writhing flails of smooth ropey limbs, constellations of dead eyes.

“If you lose your mind, like so many others, our business cannot be completed.”

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There is a word for every year
Syllables for things you hold dear
The poem of your life gets longer
As the count of your years is stronger
Until you run out of words to rhyme

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